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Grand Prix no washout for city, officials say

ST. PETERSBURG — Rather than promote the downtown's waterfront to a Sunday afternoon national audience watching ABC, this year's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg played out before a Monday morning audience watching ESPN2.

And Sunday's washout of the race meant another day the city had to spend scarce public dollars on services such as drainage and traffic control, just to make Monday's race possible.

Was this year's grand prix, which city officials bet heavily on to publicize the city and boost local businesses, a wipeout?

Not even close, said Mayor Bill Foster.

He pointed out that the stands were jammed with fans who attended for free, the first time in the race's history no one paid to see the final race.

"Opening the race to everyone and anyone was an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons," Foster said. "We had people in the stands who potentially had never seen a race before. Consider it great PR for next year. Some of them will be back."

Those who attended Monday said they were impressed by the city's ability to quickly move people in and out of downtown, which was teeming with crowds rare for weekdays.

"The access to the event is phenomenal," said Bob Lococo, a 62-year-old retiree from Niagara Falls, Canada. "The police have really done a very good job."

It doesn't come free, however. The city spent at least $200,000 to make it happen. An exhausted city staff came in early Monday to prepare the track and police the streets.

"It was like groundhog day this morning," said Kevin Dunn, the city's managing director of development coordination. "Everyone was looking forward to being done with it Sunday. Given the set of circumstances, today was an amazing accomplishment."

At about 4 a.m., seven street sweepers and vacuum trucks sucked away pools of water from the track and the grassy areas around it to make it safe for racing. Striping crews were used throughout the weekend to mark the track. Sanitation crews provided containers for garbage.

At least 50 percent of the costs were for public safety. Between Friday and Sunday, 174 employees with the Fire Department worked at the race and related events. During the same period, 104 police officers were used. Dunn said Monday's race probably used a total of 100 from the two departments, but he didn't have exact numbers.

It doesn't matter anyway, he said, because the city's agreement with the race's promoter, Green Savoree of St. Petersburg, caps what the city spends near the track at $150,000, a sum usually reached by Sunday. Any expenses above that are picked up by the promoter, Dunn said.

Still, the city spends another $50,000 managing traffic during grand prix weekend, which is not covered in the agreement. Dunn said it requires about 30 officers for traffic control. Because the event was somewhat shortened on Monday, Dunn said it probably wouldn't have cost an extra $25,000.

"It's the equivalent to a baseball game," he said. City officials also say that the parking garages made more money on Monday, helping balance out the costs.

It's tough to tell what, if anything, the city gets back because there has been no scientific study showing what's produced economically from it, Dunn said.

But restaurant and bar managers like Greg Philpot said the race helps bring in customers.

"Business usually goes up 30 percent on a grand prix weekend," said Philpot, operations manager for Central Cigars & the "Havana Room.'' "Today, it's probably up 20 percent, so this is like a bonus."

Not all business owners adore the race, however. Many of them along Beach Drive said the race actually turns people away.

"It's killing us," said Lornie Muller, owner of Lithos Jewelry. "It deflates the city's budget without helping businesses like us. Now, because of the rain, we have to endure it for another day."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Grand Prix no washout for city, officials say 03/30/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 12:44am]
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